‘Hold on tightly now, next stop, Kathmandu and then Sydney.’

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One of Top Deck Travel’s Lodekkas crossing a creek in northen India. DMOL via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Alan Payling continues with the saga of 1970s overland bus operator Top Deck Travel as it heads east to Kathmandu in Nepal, and then on to the terminus in Sydney, Australia, amongst other continents

Having been set up in business by three Australians in London November 1973, by the end of the summer of 1974, Top Deck Travel had completed nine successful and profitable tours to Morocco carrying 134 punters and had increased its fleet to two buses including its first Lodekka. But the company was thinking big. In August, one of the founders, Graham ‘Screw’ Turner, produced a brochure for the rest of the year and on into 1975. This was to include seven trips to Morocco, nine European tours, six tours to Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia, three tours to Russia and Scandinavia in addition to quickies if you like to the Munich Beerfest, Pamploma, Hogmanay, Tulip Time in Amsterdam and what was known as T-Day in Venice. While it would be unkind to say that the company’s antipodean punters weren’t interested in the history and culture of the mother country and Europe, you can tell from the list of ‘quickies’ that the company knew what would appeal to young, thirsty people from down under. Say no more.

It was while the owners were having a few jars in early 1975 that a friend came up with the new name of ‘Top Deck Travel’ for the company. They also decided at this time upon the standard livery for their vehicles of orange and cream paintwork with black lettering. Beginning with the first bus which had been christened Argas, all their buses would have names. The second bus was named Grunt for reasons which I didn’t discover. Most of their other buses would be emblazoned with their names across the front, some of which a family magazine like CBW couldn’t print. I have assumed that with a fleet of identical vehicles that would descend on camp sites in numbers throughout three continents to attend events in places like Munich for the Beerfest and Pamploma for the wine that it would be easier for the punters to find their bus in a drunken stupor if it was called something truly memorable like ‘Snot.’ Aussie wit, eh! So the third bus they bought in 1975 was christened ‘Tuft.’ Ask an Aussie, though I do have an idea.


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All aboard for Kathmandu

While overland trips to Kathmandu had always been something Screw had in mind when the company was set up in 1973, its first trek to Nepal didn’t set off until 24 October 1975 with 15 punters on board. It’s not entirely clear if any of those punters actually enquired about the company’s experience of operating such a trip. If they had, from what I’ve read, the answer would have been, once they got out of Europe, exactly none, none whatsoever. In fact, one of the company’s directors, Bill James, recounts in his book ‘Top Deck Daze’ – how he attended six promotional sales evenings for another overland company, Penn Overland, where he asked detailed questions of the presenter, Dick Cijffers, about the journey east that Top Deck Travel was about to embark upon. Nor was Screw bothered that they were going to be travelling to and then back from Nepal in the winter months. It was about to take them two months to complete the outward journey, so setting off in late October was going to see them travel back to London through the worst months of the year.

Nonetheless, off they went in ‘Grunt’ which seems to have performed well – on the outward journey. Certainly when they met other overlanders, particularly those suffering what Bill James described as ‘…eleven weeks of sheer torture, sitting in the back of a truck all day,’ then having to sleep in tents or ‘…some flea-ridden hotel,’ they realised that their double decker bus complete with bunks and kitchen was, in comparison, the height of luxury from the envious glances they got. A good selling point.

The road to Kathmandu, more or less. BILL JAMES


The journey was not uneventful meeting as they did, and not for the first time in their operations in the Middle-East and beyond, the armed and security forces of the countries they passed through, meetings that were not always friendly. They upset the Turkish army when they parked overnight in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, one of the holiest places in Turkey. Having slept in late, they were woken by a furious Turkish general, who, with a sizeable squad of Turkish infantry parading through the street they were parked in, demanded they move the bus sharpish so the Turks could welcome the German Chancellor.

When travelling through Syria heading for Damascus, they took a wrong turn and ended up at the Lebanese border. Gathered there were thousands of Syrian troops preparing to intervene in the civil war that had broken out in Lebanon. Not wanting a British double decker bus to be part of their invasion plans, they were escorted back to the right road by the Syrian army. Later, they stopped in the vicinity of the Golan Heights to take photographs in what they thought was the middle of nowhere. It turned out they were inadvertently taking snaps of missile launching sites. Cue for a dozen armoured personnel carriers along with machine gun-toting soldiers to appear. They were then escorted to a military compound where, having been politely questioned and given a lecture on the politics of the Middle-East, everyone on board was obliged to remove the film from their cameras before being sent on their way.

After a jaunt down into Jordan and the Dead Sea, they parked up the bus to cross the border into Israel on foot to then catch local buses to Jerusalem. This was the time when having an Israeli stamp in your passport when travelling through Arab countries was really bad news. After visiting Israel, they had planned to cross from Jordan into Iraq heading for Iran but couldn’t get visas. So, a slight detour was in order heading north through Syria, into Turkey and on into Iran that way. Some detour, but hey, diesel was cheap, so, no worries, mate. But when they got to the Syrian border, an Israeli bus ticket, clearly printed in Hebrew, dropped out of one of the punters’s passports. Cue a ten hour delay and much unpleasant questioning by Syrian immigration officials before being allowed to go on their way. The journey through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and then into Pakistan was, in comparison to driving through Turkey and Syria, fairly uneventful.

Bristol Lodekka PDL 519 alias ‘Tadpoles’ converted for overland use by Top Deck Travel. Photo Editor 5807 via Wikimedia Commons


The Great West Road through India offered some challenging driving not only during the day, but also at night. Poorly lit bullock carts were always a danger. On one occasion, when the bus screeched to a halt having just missed a bullock cart coming in the opposite direction, Screw jumped out of the cab intent on sharing some choice Aussie slang with the driver. But, finding him fast asleep, Screw turned the cart round, slapped the bullock on the backside sending it back in the direction it had come from. They never did find out what happened when the driver woke up. Poor bullocks.

Tata lorry drivers were also another menace. As Screw was built like the proverbial Aussie outhouse constructed using bricks, confrontations with Indian lorry drivers to decide who should have priority on narrow roads and who should reverse inevitably ended up with a scoreline of Australia 1, India 0. When they were on the last leg heading up from the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, they came across a landslide blocking the road. Describing the scene with wonderful Australian colloquial eloquence, when they saw that the local Nepalese workers were: ‘….clearing the road with about as much speed as a snail with piles,’ the Aussies relieved the local road workers of their tools and made the road passable themselves within the hour. After two months on the road, they arrived in Kathmandu, proud of being the first people to drive a double decker bus from London to Kathmandu, and celebrated with, you guessed it, a barbie, albeit with buffalo steaks all round.

After Christmas in Kathmandu, they set off for London in late January 1976. The return journey would again give the company a further taste of the sort of headaches they would face in the future. In trying to return on a different road through Quetta in Pakistan, a washed out road forced them to retrace their steps back into Afghanistan where having got bogged down at the border, they spent two hours digging the bus out. The wisdom of  travelling through the winter, particularly when they experienced temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius on the eastern plateau in Turkey, 4,000 feet above sea level, made itself apparent. A cracked engine block saw them towed into the Turkish village of Pasinler, near Erzurum where they spent five days getting Grunt up and running again. But, on 31 March 1976, they arrived back in London. They were only two weeks overdue. And were they going to do it again? Oh yes. Oh yes. And they had even more ambitious plans.


The next big development for the company was obvious, when you think about it. With Aussies and Kiwis by the boat and plane load travelling from down under to the mother country, and then going back home a couple of years later, well, wouldn’t some of them want to travel overland? Yes they did, and Top Deck Travel was going to help their fellow countrymen and women to do it. After all, Top Deck Travel were already planning to be travelling halfway to Australia on a regular basis, so why not go the rest of the way? Why not indeed. No worries there sport. Well, not too many.

By the time Grunt returned to the UK, Screw, having flown back from Kathmandu, had bought a job lot of four more Lodekkas, getting the quartet for a grand. So in addition to the expansion of the European trips, plans were put in place, and tickets sold, for the first journey half way round the globe. This set off on 7 October 1976 and was planned to take 24 weeks. The first leg to Kathmandu I have referred to above.

When the bus arrived in Nepal, the punters were then looked after by a courier. It was their job to organise the group on a flight down to Rangoon where they spent a week in what was then Burma. They took another flight to Bangkok and used local buses to travel down through Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore with another flight to Djakarta. More buses took them to Bali where they flew to Perth in Western Australia where they landed on 7 March 1977. While the punters and their courier had been trekking through Europe and Asia, Bill James had flown to Australia, bought and converted an ex-Sydney Transport double decker – make unknown but I bet it was British – sold tickets to twelve punters for the cross-Australia journey and was waiting for the globetrotters when they landed. Had anyone asked Bill James when they landed in Perth something like ‘are we nearly there yet?’, if they were heading to Sydney, the answer may have been along the lines of ‘not yet, only another continent to cross, sport, so hang on tightly now.’ After more adventures crossing the outback, the London to Sydney trip concluded on 19 March 1977. And were they going to do that again? Oh yes, oh yes. The first Sydney to London trip set off five days later on 24 March 1977.

‘Errol Flynn’, one of the Lodekkas shipped to the US in 1980, sets off on its maiden voyage stateside. Bill James

Around the word in 80 buses

And there were yet more remarkable developments and headaches ahead. From 1978, the company started selling airline tickets and acting as a travel agency which was the origin of what was to become Flight Centre. The winter of 1978-79 saw the introduction of ski-tours to Andorra where there was lots of apres-ski, Aussie style. During a trip to Scandinavia in early 1979, the route took them through Berlin where they became one of the first western tour bus companies to be allowed to travel behind the wall. On the overland trips, in 1979 and into 1980, things were hotting up en route to Kathmandu due to the major events like the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For example, when the Soviets reached Kabul, the company had three buses there which, due to a bit of fighting, the crews abandoned, flying their punters to Istanbul from where they had to be retrieved.

No worries. Just another day at the office for Top Deck Travel. Tensions in places like India, Pakistan, Iraq not to mention Israel and her neighbours all added to the, well, excitement? By 1980 the company had some 70 buses on the road, yet there were parts of the world they still wanted to go to. So four of the buses were shipped to the USA. In December 1981, one of them left LA headed south, and some. That meant travelling down through Phoenix, Arizona, on into Mexico, through El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Little local difficulties like revolution and civil war in Central America was by now par for the course for Top Deck Travel. So on they pressed through Costa Rica until they reached the other side of the Panama Canal. A bit too much jungle forced them to turn round. But even so, I reckon that Top Deck Travel provided tour bus services in five of the planet’s six continents. A record? That only left Antarctica…

So what became of Top Deck Travel? Insofar as the three Aussies who founded the company are concerned, they realised the hard way that selling holidays and flights was easier and more profitable than running double deckers all over the world. Hence the parallel development of their travel agency, Flight Centre. After a major re-organisation of Top Deck Travel in 1983 which set up 10 separate divisions, each with their own Managing Directors, and brought profitable order to the company’s near insolvent chaos, there was a management buyout in 1986. Top Deck Travel was later bought in 1997 by the Kuwaiti Algerian Investment Company and still operates, though not with Lodekkas. Meanwhile, Screw and his Aussie colleagues concentrated their efforts on Flight Centre. By 1999, this company operated five hundred stores in six countries with an annual turnover of two billion US dollars a year. The company that started out with one bus had morphed into a multi-million pound company. Which just goes to show that you can go an awfully long way with a British double decker bus – and a few Aussies!

Lodekka 813 MHW ‘Errol Flynn’ in Los Angeles, possibly at LAX airport, with American plates and livery. Richard Cripps.

Just a snapshot

In telling the tale of Top Deck Travel and their remarkable treks through Europe, into Asia and beyond, we are fortunate that there is a very good two part promotional video available on YouTube that was made in 1978 of one of their trips from London to Kathmandu. Watching this film shows just what remarkable tours the company offered. Without seeing one of their Bristol Lodekkas trundling through the Khyber Pass, I would simply not have believed that anyone would have the balls to drive 20 year old double-decker buses across two continents.

Actually, if we count Australia that had to be crossed on the London to Sydney trip, make that three continents – plus a bit of Africa and the Americas. Perhaps as a one off, you might have thought it plausible, but for quite a few years, Top Deck Travel were doing the London to Kathmandu run with Lodekkas on a regular basis, the last one in 1997. Also, there are many published accounts of the boom in overland travel of which Top Deck Travel was a part. I have relied for these articles largely on Top Deck Daze by Bill James. Even in two articles, I have really only scratched the surface of the tales, adventures and scrapes this remarkable company got into transporting punters round the globe.

It’s a wonderful story. If you want to know more, then watch the video. Also, read the book. If you do, buy a guide to Aussie slang, it’s colourful and not for the faint hearted. And in describing how they ran a bus company, Aussie style, it’s, well, different, and must have been a lot of fun. Also, if you want to see one of the Lodekkas that was used by the company, then the next time you’re on the Isle of Wight, pop along to the Isle of Wight Bus & Coach Museum. The museum has available on loan PDL 519, known affectionately as ‘Tadpoles.’

It’s still in its Top Deck Travel livery and is kitted out ready to head off to Nepal. ‘Tadpoles’ is a veteran of some 20 overland trips which came after 20 years with Southern Vectis… now, that is some bus which must have many tales to tell. If only it could talk. If it did, it would probably have an Aussie accent. If you sit behind the wheel for a moment then you can try and imagine a journey of thousands of miles ahead of you… and it takes some imagination, I can tell you.

Also, you may run into some of Top Deck Travel’s Lodekkas in various parts of the world. So send us a photo if you spot one. In particular, if you spot ‘Belch’ (822 CHU) that was confiscated by the Russian police in late 1982 – along with a lot of whisky – pass on our regards! To know more, get a copy of Top Deck Daze. It’s a great read.

Many thanks to Bill James for permission to use images from Top Deck Daze – Cheers sport!

See Asian Overland, London to Kathmandu 1978 Part 1 and 2 on YouTube and ‘Top Deck Daze’ by Bill James Hallbooks Publishing, available from www.topdeckdaze.com

A Lodekka delightfully christened ‘Choonda’ seen in Amsterdam in 1982. Frans Angevarre